Why I donated to the Software Freedom Conservancy

Posted on Mon 26 December 2011 in Software Freedom

A few days ago I made a small donation to the Software Freedom Conservancy, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization registered in the United States. There are many organizations to which I could have donated, and indeed Lynn and I have donated to a number of charities again this year, but I felt it was important to direct some funds to the Conservancy for a number of reasons - which I will attempt to describe and hopefully convince you as well.

First, for those who know that the Evergreen open source integrated library system is a member project of the Conservancy and the the project on which I invest much of my professional and person time, an obvious question might be: "Why didn't you just donate to Evergreen?". Donating to Evergreen does result in a small percentage of those funds being directed to the Conservancy. Currently, Evergreen directs 5% of its income to the Conservancy, but I feel that even with $20,000 passing through the project's hands for the purposes of the 2012 Evergreen conference, that $1,000 that goes to the Conservancy is far below the value our project has received in return in the form of Conservancy services. One of those services is the provision of a trusted third-party home for project assets such as the aforementioned finances, but also including domain names, trademarks, logos, and (if desired) copyright. While distributed ownership of these assets is not a problem for projects when everything is going fine, personal disputes, a change of business strategy, or new ownership of a contributing company can lead to severe difficulties for a project. Evergreen's sister project, Koha, found itself forced to change its domain name and fight trademark battles over its very name when one company adopted an aggressive business strategy.

Another service from which Evergreen has thus far derived great benefit is access to legal counsel familiar with software freedom issues. In September the Conservancy added Tony Sebro as General Counsel to offer basic legal assistance to its member projects. The Conservancy was most recently involved in a discussion about Evergreen documentation licensing that evolved from an unfortunately adversarial position to, shortly after the Conservancy became involved, a mutually satisfactory agreement. I believe this result was due not only to Conservancy's legal expertise and familiarity with the specific licenses in question and the general mechanism of granting licenses, but also with their ability to understand the goals of the project and its participants in helping to guide all parties to their desired goals.

The Conservancy also has a wealth of experience to draw upon to offer guidance expertise on many matters that free software projects have in common, but which each project tends to rediscover on its own. For example, the Evergreen project has been able to run conferences on an annual basis for the past three years, but has historically relied on Equinox's willingess to assume the financial risks when signing venue contracts. This year, due to the positive results of the previous conferences, the Conservancy was able to provide the deposit for the Evergreen 2012 conference in Indiana. While personally I deeply appreciate the role that Equinox has played in helping to build such a core part of our community experience, it is an important step for our project that the Conservancy be able to assume this role.

In addition, the Conservancy's experience with various conference management packages and the payment fees associated with online financial services such as Google Checkout and PayPal provided some important guidance early on in the Evergreen conference 2012 planning process. That advice probably paid for itself!

I expect that the Evergreen project will continue to benefit from our membership in the Software Freedom Conservancy as we work towards a mechanism for electing members of the Evergreen Oversight Board and continue growing and evolving the project. The $1,000 or so that the Conservancy has earned as a result of the 5% of revenue that Evergreen directs its way is far below the value that we have derived from our relationship thus far, and that is why I have chosen to donate to the Conservancy again this year.

P.S. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit, donations to the Conservancy are tax-deductible for American citizens. As a Canadian, this particular benefit does not apply to me - however, the rest of the benefits that the Conservancy provides to free software projects are international in scope and deserve to be supported.